On the Democratic Convention: Will Obama Keep His Promise on Merit Pay for Teachers?

In this first installment of Education Watch, Bruce Fuller and Lance T. Izumi discuss what was and wasn’t said in Denver about our school system. And Sandra Tsing Loh weighs in on her perspective. Go to Mr. Fuller’s post and Ms. Loh’s post.

Lance T. Izumi, a senior fellow in California studies and the senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, is the co-author of the book “Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice.” (Full biography.)

While Michelle Obama’s speech naturally drew the headlines on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, those trying to read the tea leaves as to what an Obama administration’s education policy would look like were probably more interested in an earlier speech by Reg Weaver, president of the 3.2-million-member National Education Association, which endorsed Barack Obama in July.

Mr. Weaver’s speech consisted mostly of restating the standard litany of Obama positions: expanded early childhood education, smaller class sizes and more money for public education. Twice, however, he focused on testing, the National Education Association’s bete noire.

According to Mr. Weaver, “the world is too complex and diverse to judge students by a single, multiple choice and high-stakes test.” Later, he added that the country needed a president “who will treat children as more than test scores.” Testing, however, is the intersection where some of the most interesting questions about a possible future Obama administration cross paths.

Take, for example, his much-vaunted call for merit pay for teachers. In a speech to the American Federation of Teachers, Mr. Obama said that under his plan school districts could increase salaries for teachers who mentor other teachers, teach in underserved areas, take added responsibilities, learn new skills or “consistently excel in the classroom.” It is this last factor that could open the door to potential confrontation with his teacher-union allies.

How does one measure a teacher’s classroom excellence? One obvious method is by using testing data to measure the improvement and progress of students during their time under a particular teacher’s tutelage. In the current contract negotiations with teachers in Washington, reformist Chancellor Michelle Rhee is proposing $20,000 yearly bonuses for teachers based on student academic improvement, with test scores being one of the factors to measure that improvement. Under Ms. Rhee’s proposal, teachers with as little as six years of experience could make more than $100,000.

John Wilson, the executive director of the National Education Association, said recently that his union would oppose merit-pay plans based on improved student test scores. So would Mr. Obama buck his union friends and side with reformers like Ms. Rhee? Mr. Obama has cited both Cincinnati’s merit-pay plan, which does not use student test scores but rather uses a teacher peer-review process, and Chicago’s plan, which does use test scores.

Having teachers review other teachers for performance creates skepticism among many, even in the unions. Wayne Johnson, former head of the California Teachers Association (an National Education Association affiliate), has said: “I’m afraid there are some built-in expectations that if teachers start reviewing teachers, it will have some major impact on quality of education . . . I don’t think that’s the case.”

Mr. Obama has rightly drawn praise for his courage to push merit pay in front of teacher-union audiences. The question now is whether he would allow his union allies to limit the parameters of merit pay, turning his good intentions into less-than-effective policy.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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